Preventing and Healing Stress Related Depression, Anxiety and Childhood Behavior
Santa Barbara Graduate



The Traumatized Imagination: Creativity, Trauma and the Neurobiology of the Resilient Spirit

By Paula Thomson, Psy.D.

The adage, "Fear is the enemy of art" is often stated during the training of artists in an effort to increase their courage to explore new areas and to express new ideas. A creative individual with an early history of trauma has already encoded deep physiological and psychological fear states that often resonate during the creative process and within the early formation of the Self. These early attachment disruptions can profoundly alter the psychoneurobiological process of creativity.

Trauma, Early attachment and Neurobiology:
The word trauma originates from the Greek word 'to wound'. As every clinician has observed, early traumatic relationships can cause deep and long-lasting wounds. Based on the seminal work by Dr. Allan Schore and other researchers in the field of infant development, the earliest primary relationship between the infant and mother is often the source of these painful experiences. When the mother is unable to regulate her own affective states, the infant is then directly subjected to these experiences. Through chronic early relational misattunements, an environment of ambient stress is created and when the mother is severely dysregulated, then the infant may experience more overt abuse and / or neglect. In the most extreme forms of maltreatment, the mother can become a frightening figure for the infant, or equally distressing, she may experience her own baby as frightening. These infants are subjected to inconsistent disorganizing and disoriented parenting which results in a similar pattern of chaotic and incongruent internal working models of self and other.

Why do some people who suffered horrific childhoods lead productive lives and others are barely able to function? Why do some patients respond to treatment and others seem to remain destitute? Based on a convergence of research, early relational trauma not only impacts attachment pattern formation and resilience, but it also alters brain structure, function and gene expression. Neurovulnerability includes the concept of critical periods, literally a developmental window of time that is not repeated in which neurons, axons, dendrites, dendritic spines, myelin and synapses rapidly proliferate. During these critical periods, the hierarchically maturing brain is profoundly vulnerable to the environmental insults of abuse and / or neglect. Neurotoxicity, a state that provokes increased cell death, can occur at any time during the lifespan; however, when it happens during critical periods massive cell death results in the regions and circuits that are undergoing rapid growth. Through a process of neural plasticity and allostasis, the brain can adapt to neurotoxicity but the compensatory circuits are not as robust as the original circuits that were genetically programmed to function. Neurovulnerability and neurotoxicity directly impact the resilience of the individual.

The Creative Process and Creative Traits:
One of the major difficulties in conducting studies in the field of creativity is the challenge of setting clear markers to delineate creativity. Dictionary definitions claim that originality and meaningful new ideas, forms or methods are evident and the creative product transcends traditional ideas, rules, patterns or relationships. This describes the product but does not adequately describe the creative personality or the process. Two primary stances are posited to describe the artist. The first suggests that the creative individual employs creativity as an attempt to manage overwhelming anxiety. This defensive use of creativity is designed to protect the individual and it also sets the stage for the notion of employing creativity as an active agent for healing psychological wounds. The second position claims that creativity is a response from a healthy intact ego; despite early losses or maltreatment, the individual was going to be an artist. Both these positions are evident in creatives with early relational trauma histories.

The creative process involves two distinct phases, inspiration and elaboration or integration, and these sequential phases may occur rapidly or alternate for months or even years depending on the project and the creative individual. The two phases employ different cognitive and affective strategies; the initial phase, inspiration, is comprised of divergent thinking, inductive reasoning and broad global focus. It involves less frontal activity which facilitates disinhibition of the sub-cortical regions allowing more subcortical information to enter the creative process. The second phase, elaboration, consists of convergent thinking, deductive reasoning and focused attention. Both phases engage the right and left hemispheres. The rights hemisphere is able to contextualize events through a process of balance, focus, self-awareness, self-reflection and self-monitoring and the left hemisphere applies learned rules, specificity, complexity and reason. We require both hemispheres to create content and form that shapes creative meaning.

The creative traits found within the individual include fantasy and image formation that operate within all sensory modalities; multiple cognitive strategies including associational fluency and broad attentional focus; sensitivity, intuition and aloofness; an ability to tolerate more emotional intensity, ambiguity and frustration; an ability to engage in novelty and the capacity to be motivated by intrinsic factors. It is important to remember that most or all of these creative traits must be present during the creative act; however, it doesn't mean that they are fundamental components of the individual's behavior during non-creative activities. This may explain why a higher proportion of geniuses have suffered mental illness and yet continue to produce creative work; they are able to access these traits during the creative process. Many theorists have also argued that the rare existence of highly creative individuals is not because one trait is unusual but rather that it is the confluence of multiple factors that operate during the creative process that is rare. During the creative process the individual must be dynamically able to fluidly engage multiple brain regions and rapidly shift between multiple neural circuitry patterns. Research has also clearly illustrated the paramount need for the creative individual to receive a solid knowledge base and skill set in his or her creative domain. Support must exist during the acquisition of these skills as well as during the individual's career. The starving artist does not perform well; most creative productivity occurs during conditions in which the creative individual resides in a supportive environment.

Since creatives have a more sensitive basal system, the need for good-enough mothering during early infant development is even more important. Early relational trauma negatively alters the hierarchical maturation of the young child's brain. For creative individuals with a trauma history, the initial inspiration phase repeatedly reveals these early brain deficits. Entering states of cortical disinhibition can evoke feelings of disintegration, a state that often terrifies traumatized artists, and the early forming right hemisphere that encodes a corporeal sense of self, when it is in a state of disinhibition, will release these early relational traumatic memories. Fantasy may be deployed as a dissociative escape tactic and with repeated dissociative withdrawal, a diminished range and depth of developmental experiences results leading to further reduction in the range and depth of creative expression necessary for mature artistic work.

Trauma provokes affective numbing and 'psychic closing off' which limits the freedom of creative expression. Conversely, creativity can provide a powerful escape from an inescapable traumatic situation. Later in development, creativity may be engaged as a potent modality for healing the wounds inflicted during the traumatic relational interactions; however, alterations in brain structure and function may need to be addressed during the healing process. Early relational trauma affects all levels of functioning, including the vital life-affirming process of creativity.



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